Photo: Getty Images
Usually, HBO’s 24/7 beats the actual Winter Classic in fanfare and expectation. This year, it has simply been a welcomed preview. The Big House in Ann Arbour, Michigan gathered a record number of bodies (105,491 people), vastly exceeding 71,217 humans attending the first Winter Classic in 2008. After a tough 5-4 SO loss against the Wings on December 21st, the Leafs were due for a victory. Paul Ranger had the right idea, wearing the eye-paint of the tiger and looking very much up for a game which brought him and all those in attendance to the core of their love of hockey. We’ve all been waiting for this a long time, so let’s see how this one panned out.
1) The Leafs are 21-16-5 and this was a proper celebration of the game. Also, in the midst of the Classic it was confirmed that JM Liles and Dennis Robertson were traded to Carolina for a dependable shutdown defenseman Tim Gleason. Don’t expect miracles, but the defensive end of things should be somewhat bolstered by his presence. Now, let’s get to the on-ice happenings. Considering the standings, this was an important game for both teams.
2) The conditions certainly played a major part right from the start, and showering the goaltenders wasn’t really frowned upon as much with all the snow. Frequent breaks for ice cleanup offered a chance for some additional strategizing on the benches. Dump and chase was the name of the game as goalies weren’t advised to take field trips behind their net (Bernier didn’t seem to have any trouble in doing so, though). Also, the surface made it difficult for players like Datsyuk to take full advantage of their puck-handling skills offensively but a lot of it played into Detroit’s hands with the kind of ‘meat and potatoes’ style of play they employ which was obvious by the shot count after the opening frame. The first powerplay of the game came after Abdelkader crosschecked Phaneuf from behind in the corner and the Californian made ice/snow removers were once again called into action. A fresh sheet of ice didn’t help the Leafs who couldn’t really put anything dangerous on Jimmy Howard.
3) Like Healy noticed (or heard on 24/7) all Detroit defenseman are left handed shooters which made it difficult for their defense to handle the puck on their off-side, especially in conditions like these. Unfortunately, the Leafs didn’t take advantage of that throughout the opening period. The Wings got their first man advantage during the middle of the opening frame when Lupul took a revenge on Kindl’s hit by crosschecking Eaves into the head. Bernier had to be really sharp since the Wings’ powerplay didn’t look as lethargic – still, no goals were scored as Dan Cleary looked to the sky following another good save by the Leafs netminder. The period ended with some grit shown by the Leafs and another good penalty kill following an unfortunate penalty call on Dion.
4) The water bottles were a tougher opponent for the likes of Todd Bertuzzi today. The things were frozen solid and required frequent replacements to keep the goaltenders hydrated. As the second period played out, Nazem Kadri got absolutely robbed by Howard on the best opportunity of the game created by Joffrey Lupul. The kid was slamming his stick on the bench for missing that one. We also found out that the elements were no match for the greatness of Pavel Datsyuk who was still doing his thing in the second.
5) The middle frame saw both teams pushing the pace, but the majority of puck possession and chances still belonged to the Red Wings. Half way into it, Dan Cleary couldn’t put the biscuit past a sprawling Jonathan Bernier who got a slight piece of it and continued with his solid performance in this one. Tatar’s rush just prior to that wasn’t something to sneeze at either. The Leafs were spending too much time in their own zone and the Wings almost made them pay. The shot count stood 19-10 in favor of the red team 12 minutes into the 2nd.
6) Wings got a break on a lucky bounce of the boards which put Zetterberg and Alfredsson on a two-on-one break as Franson got caught up ice. Surely enough, that got them first goal of the hockey game. This was followed by another Leafs penalty, Jay McClement sat in the box as Leafs Nation held their breath. A two goal lead with one period to play, in a game like this – yeah, you’re basically done. Fortunately, the PK did it’s job, thanks mostly to some stellar saves by Bernier. First he stole one from Cleary and followed that up with a 10-bell save on Detroit’s top powerplay unit. Some end to end stuff saw Howard do the same on JVR after his big hit, resulting in a Leafs man advantage. It was surely too late, but the US-born goalie was making his final bid for a roster spot at the Sochi Olympics, stopping the Buds time after time. Be that as it may, our own American wouldn’t be denied. JVR tied the game just 37 second from the buzzer by batting a puck out of the air and scoring past Howard who was seemingly unbeatable down low. Phil Kessel (12:43) and van Riemsdyk (12:34) were leading all forwards in ice time after 2.
7) The tying goal set everyone up for a terrific third period. Dion Phaneuf’s bloody lip gave him an some added nastiness, which seemed to be squarely aimed at Daniel Alfredsson. He was pinching and frequently finishing checks, the best of which coming against the Swede in the offensive zone where he got the puck and the man.
8) Our captain also celebrated his new contract with a huge assist from the point. He simply threw a puck to the net, it passed a bunch of bodies and sticks in front and ended up behind Detroit’s goaltender – a quick review was made but it was definitely a good goal, a vital goal, which should kill all the talk about his extension, even if only for a brief period of time. Bozak was credited with a deflection in the end.
9) A half-handed effort by Franson let Abdelkader power his way to the net and put the puck behind Bernier. Nothing in hockey, especially in a spectacle such as this, comes easy. The Wings pinched like crazy and it most certainly paid off. Still, if there was any doubt prior to tonight, Jonathan Bernier used the brightest of spotlights to grab the starting position ahead of James Reimer. Perhaps, this will be the biggest storyline of the Winter Classic. Overtime, as exciting as it was, solved nothing and the game went to a shootout where Tyler Bozak, of all people, scored to end the game. Welcome back sir!
10) The final episode of 24/7 will taste much sweeter now. It’s not a Stanley Cup, but it’s a major win the team can rally around and a soothing sensation for the entire contingent of Leafs Nation, which can finally celebrate something. Enjoy it.
2014 Winter Classic Shot Location Data
2014 Winter Classic Game in 6
There isn’t much I can add to the powerplay analysis that wasn’t in the write up by JP Nikota describing the Leafs use of the 1-3-1. They adopted this system in 2012-13 while more teams have incorporated the formation throughout the NHL.
Photo: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images
A promising first period went badly astray as the Leafs had their five-game home winning streak snapped by four unanswered goals from the Nashville Predators. The Leafs move to 13-8-1 on the season.
A bizarre loss for the Leafs in game eight of the regular season. The bigger concern may be who the Leafs lost.
Based on the personnel on offer, preseason could become at least a little more interesting tonight.
Randy Carlyle will be icing a few line combinations of intrigue, including a potential “shut down line” combination of Dave Bolland, Mason Raymond and Nikolai Kulemin. How Raymond fares on that unit will be a worthwhile talking point; this seems to be, based on the projected opening night lineup, the spot he is vying for. The line looks good on paper, with a nice balance of two-way acumen, speed, and some grit between Kulemin and Bolland.
Crazy eyes Clarkson
Heading into free agency, nearly every Leafs fan knew that Nonis wanted to bring in David Clarkson, considered your prototypical Carlyle guy. Well, I’m sure you all know that Nonis got his man, and at a hefty $5.25 million cap hit for 7 years. There’s been much discussion since the signing about the contract Nonis gave to Clarkson and I don’t particularly want to beat a dead horse. So, without really delving into the subject of whether or not I think he’s worth that money or term, I want to give Leafs fans a look into what Clarkson brings to the table.
A Leafs win and a Jets loss would mean the Leafs are officially post-season bound. Oh my god, it’s been so long I don’t remember how to feel. What boggles my mind is how many Leafs fans weren’t even 10 years old when it happened. God, that makes a man in his 30s feel old. Let’s see what happens…
A Toronto Maple Leaf hasn’t won a major NHL award in an embarrassing amount of years. This year, however, it looks as if there could be a case made for 3 award nominations —major or otherwise, for the Leafs.
The last “major” award was Doug Gilmour winning the Selke Trophy in the 1992-1993 season, 20 years ago.
In a matchup with big playoff implications, the Leafs could move ten up on the 10th-placed Carolina Hurricanes with a win in this four-point swing game. A loss in regulation puts the Hurricanes within six with three games in hand.
The Hurricanes are an opponent the Leafs have struggled with in both matchups this season. Their strength down the middle has played a key role as the Staal brothers have featured prominently on the scoresheet in a combined 7-2 win over the two games. Among teams the Leafs have played more than once, the Canes are the only opponent they have gained zero points off of.
Photo by: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images
After a good comeback/confidence-building game against the Tampa Bay Lighting, the Toronto Maple Leafs have perhaps created more questions than answers. The Penalty Kill keeps improving (now 6th in the East) and, even as a “work in progress” defensively, they can at least score in bunches to get themselves out of trouble. They are starting to show the signs that the elite teams in the league show on a regular basis. While they are probably a couple of roster moves away from being mentioned in the same breath as a Pittsburgh Penguins, the rebuild is starting to see the light of day, it appears.
It was one of the first times this season that Nazem Kadri was paired against another top offensive line, but he did it the whole game. We’re not talking about any ol’ line, but the best goal scorer in the league and his better-than-ppg-avg wingman. He beat Steven Stamkos on draws, engaged in the game physically and on the score board. It was yet another coming out party for Kadri and what a nice live viewing for the 30 GMs that were in town to discuss various NHL issues. Most were at the Air Canada Centre taking in the game against Tampa.
Up until this game, Randy Carlyle has been riding the Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and—at least most of the time—Jay McClement line hard against the other team’s top lines. Too much so? That’s hard to say. Kulemin has had many opportunities that he simply is not bearing down on; he was on pace for 10 goals this season before his 2-goal effort against Tampa Bay on a line with Kadri.
Grabovski was paired with MacArthur and Frattin against Tampa and was still looking a little lost. As Grabo goes, those two go. And something that was enlightening in Randy Carlyle’s post-game interview:
“The one thing that we are going to do is we’re going to test Kadri against the best players,” Carlyle said after his team snapped a five-game winless skid with a 4-2 victory over the Lightning. “He wants that, he cherishes it and tonight it worked for him.”
“I think this is just another step in the maturing of a young hockey player,” Carlyle said of his decision to increase Kadri’s responsibility. “And I’m sure there’s going to be some speed bumps along the way and he’s going to turn the puck over when we don’t want him to … [but] the good things outweigh the poor judgments that he’s making by 10 to 2.”
Could #FreeGardiner and #FreeGrabo happen in the same week? It looks like Kadri wants to run with the top match-ups and wants the ice-time that is associated with it. Time will tell if he is up to the task, but this appears to be equal parts a praising and a scolding. Praise for Kadri and his excellent play to date, and a scolding for Grabovski who appeared, to me at least, that he didn’t like all his defensive zone face-offs and having to skate 200ft for his goals. It could very well be a case of lost in translation, but changing brands of sticks isn’t going to help Grabovski at this stage. He’s looking lost and it’s affecting his confidence badly.
Also troubling—to my eye—is how ineffective the Phil Kessel line is. Clearly, Phil Kessel’s game is all about speed, attacking off the rush, his release and his quick hands around the net. This may be oddly timed because Kessel is on a 5 game point streak, a testament to his ability to produce regardless of his circumstances. Kessel tallied a single assist last night giving him four goals and four assists in that span. He sits second on the team in scoring with 28 points but shifts go by where I hardly notice Bozak, him or JVR. They are clicking to a certain degree, but they are not dominating the way that Kessel and Lupul were last year with the absence of a legit number one centerman.
James van Riemsdyk, while a great addition to this team and yet another lop-sided trade from Brian Burke, is reaping the benefits from playing with Kessel, it’s just that Kessel is not reaping the benefits of playing with JVR as much as he could from a center and a winger who could play the game as his pace. MacArthur, Frattin and now Lupul have all “found chemistry” with Kadri. I think it’s more of a case of Kadri is just making everyone around him that much better. Lupul can convert those chances better than the others can. JVR would, more than likely, benefit from a good centerman more than Lupul, who has shown in the past that he can play just fine without one—no offence, Bozak.
Tyler Bozak, it seems more than ever before in his career, is playing way above his head on the 1st line. It’s dragging his, Kessel’s and JVR’s play down. He’s constantly a step behind and is not able to make the plays that the other two are able to. If you were to change JVR and Lupul, that would be magnified.
Grabovski, if we can believe what Carlyle says about Kadri, will be freed up to experiment up and down the lineup. The only logical reason that Kessel and Grabovski have never played extended periods of time together is because, it can be assumed, they both love to have the puck on their stick and both love to carry the puck through the neutral zone—they play a similar game, not a complementary game.
The caveat to that, I would contest, is that elite players will figure out how to get the puck to each other. Grabovski can skate, stick handle, navigate through traffic and shoot at absolutely top speed–the same as Kessel can. They’re good enough to play on the PP together, but that is a different discipline where it’s rarely ever off the rush and is instead done with puck movement inside the offensive blueline. Both players’ strength is scoring off the rush and, if you are going to keep Kessel on this team long term and get the most out of him in his prime years (his peak year is historically this year—his 25th year), you need a center that is as fast as him and not lagging behind the play like Bozak constantly is. I don’t think a “Big 1C” would work with Kessel’s game very well. If Kessel, Grabovski and Lupul could play their game at top-speed like they can—and execute—it would be a devastating line that would be able to handle some defensive assignments that Kessel/Bozak/JVR just aren’t able to do right now.
Carlyle is not afraid to put the blender away and try players together for more than 1 shift together. As much as arm coaches scream for change, it’s refreshing to have a coach that will play a line together for a full game, and even for bunches of games before he puts the blender to it. The one thing that has never happened with Kessel and Grabovski is them being played together, on the same line, for a week of games (or more).
Tyler Bozak is a solid hockey player trying to keep up with an elite goal scorer and an elite skater in Kessel and he just can’t keep up with the speed at which the plays are made. Bozak playing with MacArthur and Frattin on the third line would be a much better fit—soft starts, good chances at dominating the faceoff dot—and starting each play with all-important possession—and playing with players of his calibre and his foot speed. It will improve his output tremendously if he can slow the game down to his speed and play with two good, solid wingers in MacArthur and Frattin.
Under Ron Wilson, this experiment would likely have never happened; he had all the opportunity in the world to try it. Under Randy Carlyle, if he does experiment with them on the same line, you would hope that, in keeping with tradition, he’ll give them the appropriate allotment of games together to either sink or swim with this idea for the rest of the season and into the playoffs.
As far as statistical data, Left Wing Lock is said to be wildly inaccurate, but it’s all we have.
- 2010/2011 Even-Strength Forward Combinations
- 2011/2012 Even-Strength Forward Combinations
- 2012/2013 Even-Strength Forward Combinations
There’s enough data there to say that Grabovski and Kessel have hardly played together at even-strength.
Toronto’s 1st line centerman might have been under their nose all along.
The Leafs welcomed the Penguins in what was their second meeting of the season. A win in the first game in Pittsburgh certainly felt good, but this was a Penguins team that has 7 wins in their last 10 games and has just now started to push for the top of the Conference standings. It was a different game entirely.
Photo: USA Today Sports
Since we are almost at the halfway point, I thought now would be a good time to write some notes on each individual player thus far. Here is the close-but-not-quite-halfway Leafs Notebook: